Julien Benda, Antonio Gramsci, and Edward Said all have their own definitions of what an intellectual is and how an intellectual should act in regards to politics. Julien Benda blatantly argues that intellectuals should not be involved in politics, but it is impossible to be entirely disengaged in the modern world. In contrast Antonio Gramsci suggests expanding the term intellectual to encompass all people who are members of political parties. Edward Said, like Gramsci, believes the intellectual to be one involved in politics, however they should not just go along with a specific party or state, but instead they should continue to challenge the policies and actions of a party or state whether they belong to it or not.
According to Benda an intellectual must free themselves from politics. To be a true intellectual by Benda’s definition one must never be “diverted from single-hearted adoration of the Beautiful and the Divine by the necessity of earning their daily bread.” (1) Benda appears to acknowledge that for these true intellectuals to exist in today’s world they need sponsors. Even if the sponsors were not governments or politicians the intellectuals would likely remain politically engaged as they would need to please their sponsors in order to keep their sponsorship. It appears that even Benda himself has realized that with modernity it is impossible to be an intellectual and not in some way be politically engaged, as he ends his article by stating that “the political realism of the ‘clerks,’ far from being a superficial fact due to the caprice of an order of men, seems to me bound up with the very essence of the modern world.” (2) Thus Benda does admit that in the modern world intellectuals can rarely avoid being politically engaged, but he separates them from what he considers the true intellectuals, who are those that are politically disengaged.
Unlike Benda’s definition of an intellectual to be a person that is preferable disengaged from politics, Gramsci describes an intellectual’s main characteristic to be that they are politically engaged. According to Gramsci “all men are intellectuals…, but not all men have in society the function of intellectual.” (3) The main way he defines those that serve the function of intellectual is based on their involvement in politics. At one point Gramsci goes as far as to suggest that all members of political parties are intellectuals. (4) While it may be hard to accept all political party members as intellectuals, especially in today’s world when everyone belongs to one party or another, this idea put forth by Gramsci acknowledges how politics has become such an unavoidable sphere that not only must an intellectual take part in it, but it comes to define the intellectual.
Edward Said appears to go have a similar idea about who an intellectual is as Gramsci describes, at least when it comes to them being politically engaged. Gramsci describes the intellectuals as emerging from certain social groups, which influences their political actions, as they advocate for the group they identify with. Said on the other hand stresses that the intellectual’s role in politics is to be critical and always questioning even those ideas that appear to help the group the intellectual identifies with. Said does say that “I am moved by causes and ideas that I can actually choose to support because they conform to values and principles that I believe in,” (5) however this does not limit the intellectual to not critiquing the social group from which he emerged. Thus according to Said an intellectual is always challenging the politics that are against his ideas of what is moral, whether that means critiquing his own social group or others, from which he is an outsider.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century and the coinciding move into modernity it has become impossible to escape becoming involved in politics even for the intellectual. Julien Benda deals with this by glorifying the intellectuals of the past that were able to devote their lives to studying without becoming involved in politics as true intellectuals and blaming modernity for causing intellectuals to become unavoidably politically engaged. Gramsci approaches defining the modern intellectual in an entirely different way by expanding the definition to include all political party members, thus making politically engaged a central characteristic of functioning as an intellectual. Said also acknowledges that intellectuals must be politically engaged, however he stresses that need to challenge policies that are immoral and that an intellectual must not be blinded by party affiliation. No matter which definition of intellectual one chooses, it is impossible to ignore the fact that all intellectuals that move into the public sphere in some way become politically engaged.
1. Julien Benda, “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals,” Readings in Western Civilization: Twentieth Century Europe. Ed. John Boyer and Jan Goldstein (University of Chicago Press, 1987), 336.
2. Ibid., 341.
3. Antiono Gramsci, “Selections from The Prison Notebooks,” Readings in Western Civilization: Twentieth Century Europe. Ed. John Boyer and Jan Goldstein (University of Chicago Press, 1987), 322.
4. Ibid., 327.
5. Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, (Vintage Books, 1994), 88.